Wayland’s Smithy was my next stop on a visit that included Uffington’s White Horse and hillfort. The Smithy is a Neolithic tomb – technically a chambered long barrow, similar to the one at West Kennet – and it is located about a mile and a quarter to the west of the ramparts of Uffington Castle, along the route of the ancient Ridgeway. You can walk there easily from the National Trust White Horse Hill car park, but you cannot drive there; the closest road to it is Knighton Hill, which is narrow and with few places to leave vehicles.
Despite being in busy south-east England, this feels an oddly isolated part of the country. The houses are visible, but out of reach, the sky is big and, on the occasions I’ve visited, there have never been many people about. To make the point, just one horse and its rider passed me on my short trek to get to this legendary prehistoric site. Actually, it took longer than I thought it would; the Ridgeway became a dusty track and I wondered if Wayland’s Smithy had been concealed by some ancient spell. Neighbouring woods looked as though they concealed the Green Knight. Then, off a narrow well-trodden path next to a sweet meadow, I eventually found it.
Wayland’s Smithy seemed a strange place, a piece of ancient man-made design resting in an open grove of graceful beech trees, lit by the same warm sun that gave heat and light to its builders so very long ago. It was deserted, but there was a sensation that people were just hovering in the shadows, watching; and a most curious awareness of long ago – almost at the dawn of man. If I’d had a companion with me, we would have whispered.
In the quite recent past, Wayland’s Smithy was known as Wayland Smith’s cave. There is an old tale that, if a traveller’s horse lost a shoe on the road, he should bring the horse hither and leave it overnight with a piece of money. Returning at daybreak, he might find the horse shod and the money gone. This legend of the invisible smith was established by the 18th century and later known to Walter Scott and Rudyard Kipling, both of whom used it in their writing. But the association with the mysterious Wayland Smith is far older than that. The name goes back to the 9th century, at least, when it was referred to as Welandes smithy.
Weland, as the Anglo-Saxons knew him, was actually a Norse elf, Völundr, a smith of exceptional, supernatural, skill, whose reputation for beautiful weaponry and jewellery was known far and wide. However, the avaricious King Niduth of Sweden wanted to possess all the fruits of Völundr’s labours. He kidnapped the smith, cruelly ham-strung him to stop him escaping and demanded that he worked solely for Niduth in the royal workshops. Völundr pretended to go along with this; then he tricked the king’s two young sons into his forge, decapitated them, fashioned exquisite gold goblets from their skulls and stunning jewels from their eyes and teeth. He presented these baubles to the unsuspecting king and queen, and their daughter, who were all delighted. As the king was quaffing wine from his beautiful new goblets, and sending search parties out to track down his missing boys, his daughter, the Princess Beahilda, shyly approached Völundr to mend a beautiful ring her father had given her. Recognising the ring as one he had made for his own lovely wife, the Swan-Princess, Völundr became even angrier than he was already. He drugged the poor girl, raped her, and flew away on magic wings, taunting Niduth as he went that the King of Sweden’s only male heir now was growing inside Beahilda’s womb – and it was his. Völundr eventually came to rest on the Berkshire downs, where he made his new home inside an ancient tomb. Down through the centuries, he created many wondrous things there, including the sword, Excalibur, that the wizard Merlin asked him to fashion. Völundr – or Wayland – has shod a few horses too since then, of course, and lives there still, in his smithy.
Wayland’s Smithy is about 185 feet (56.4 metres) long by about 43 feet (13 metres) wide, and was built in two phases – each long before Wayland took up residence. Phase 1 was constructed between 3,590 and 3,555 BC. It was a rectangular stone and timber box, with two split tree trunks at either end and a paved stone floor. Within a 15 year period, the remains of 14 people – 11 men, 2 women and a child – were placed there. Their badly smashed bones were uncovered in the 1960s, along with some other artefacts – arrow heads, fragments of pottery and quernstones.
Later, the box was covered by a mound of chalk and earth. Sometime between 3,460 and 3,400 BC, another barrow was built over the top, with a stone chamber at the southern end. At that time, it is thought the Ridgeway ran past the sealed entrance. At some point, the tomb was robbed, but bones from 8 remaining bodies were found during excavations in 1919.
I walked back thinking about these people, where they had lived, why they were chosen to be buried – what they’d been like. In the distance, Uffington Castle loomed; when our distant ancestors built that, the people laid to rest in Wayland’s Smithy had already been dead for two thousand eight hundred years.